What holds Scotland back? Our relationship with England and ourselves

Gerry Hassan

Sunday National, February 9th 2020

Scotland has travelled far in recent decades. The country is more autonomous, confident, self-governing and secure in having multiple identities. This is what we often tell ourselves and there is truth in it. Yet it is also true that after 20 years of the Scottish Parliament we still have many areas in which to progress, and numerous barriers that hold us back and limit the lives of too many.

Much of what restricts us can be directly linked to structural issues and hard power – economic, social, and political. But there are also cultural and psychological dimensions – and all of these can be seen in our relationship with England and its impact on Scotland, and the wider state of our society.

Take the relationship with England. Scotland is 8.4% of the UK population, England 84%. We are one-third the land mass and even more in maritime waters. The population balance means that political power in UK elections does not often sit here but in England.

The Scots often do not get the government we vote for. This has happened to Scotland NINE times in the past 14 UK elections since 1970. It has only happened to England on TWO occasions out of 21 since 1945 – 1964 and February 1974 – when both times the UK had an incredibly close result.

Political power lying elsewhere has consequences. People feel their powerlessness; it can induce what psychologist Martin Seligman called ‘learned helplessness’. In many UK elections Scottish voters can tell that decisions are being made for them by others.

For example, when Scots have their democratic wishes overturned – whether the imposition of the poll tax, rape clause, bedroom tax, or Brexit itself – this has a cumulative effect and can contribute to Scots feeling powerless.

This can produce a counter-tendency of blaming others for the state of Scotland – sometimes accurately but not always, with it being easier to cast the Westminster government, Tories and Labour, and the British establishment as the villains of the peace.

Our relationship with England has many dimensions. Canadian Premier Pierre Trudeau in 1969 described the Canadian relationship with the US as ‘sleeping with an elephant’. Scottish writers such as P.H. Scott and Ludovic Kennedy used this image about Scotland and England, describing the former as ‘in bed with an elephant’.

Trudeau said that ‘no matter how even-tempered and friendly the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt’; P.H. Scott writing on Scotland and England stated: ‘The elephant can use its sheer bulk and weight to flatten resistance altogether. This can happen even accidentally without malicious intention.’

Pre-union, Scotland’s relationship with England was shaped by the latter’s numerous attempts to conquer and claim lordship over this country. Scotland’s resistance to this in the Wars of Independence and subsequently did much to define our distinctiveness and nationhood.

Post-1707, the relationship of the two nations has been more nuanced. At times Scottish elites saw their future as incorporation with England and championing ‘North Britain’. This was abandoned for the common project in the 20th century shaped through two world wars and the welfare state, but the end of empire and retreat of Britain as an imperial project brought home tensions between the two nations.

Educationalist and psychotherapist Colin Kirkwood sees this heritage as still carrying weight but says: ‘I don’t think in terms of Scotland versus England. I think of the continuing underlying echoes in both countries of British imperialism with its feudalism, its centralism, its upward social mobility, its success orientation.’

Scotland’s geography and demographics matter – as does our geo-political position as a gateway to the North Atlantic. We are a small nation population wise with some of the most successful nations in the world comparable in size – for example, Norway, Finland, Iceland and Denmark.

Is there a unique Scottish dimension to how we see ourselves beyond the union? This is the view of Carol Craig in her 2003 book ‘The Scots’ Crisis of Confidence’. Looking back on her thesis from today she reflects: ‘The main idea is that there is something in Scotland’s culture, history and values that leads Scots to feel that they are worthless until they prove they are worthwhile. Scottish culture then make it difficult for people to do that because there is another set of values which tell you not to think you are better than anyone else.’

Scottish politics for most of the 20th century focused on how far to tame unbridled capitalism that produced enormous wealth alongside scandalous poverty. This society was defined by institutional power, tradition, hierarchy and the patriarchal power of elderly men – in the Kirk and Catholic Church, Labour and Tory parties, and in professions such as law. As recently as 1979 Scotland elected an astonishing one woman MP out of 71 – Labour’s Judith Hart.

This political culture was rooted in Scotland’s limited experience of democracy – reinforced by the UK never becoming a fully-fledged political democracy – with 56% of Scots sharing this view of the UK in a Panelbase poll released this week.

In Scotland pre-devolution, with political power at Westminster, our politics were shaped by a Scottish corporate lobby where politicians, business groups, trade union leaders and senior church figures, who made the case for more funding or favourable government decisions from Westminster. This dynamic of looking to the UK government encouraged a belief that we couldn’t stand on our own feet and reinforced a dependency mindset, alongside an institutional groupthink to maximalise leverage vis-à-vis London.

This legacy was never going to disappear overnight with the arrival of the Scottish Parliament – particularly when the country is overwhelmingly funded by the block grant and Barnett consequentials determined by Whitehall. This dynamic reinforces political and fiscal power remaining elsewhere – outside Scotland, hindering the capacity and potential of self-government.

The Scottish Parliament has changed our country, but in 20 years it has not been enough of a forum for flourishing debate, diversity, and facing up to hard truths. This mixed picture needs to be faced. How do we challenge continued institutional groupthink? Can we expand the range of voices in decision-making? How can we encourage and foster fresh ideas to emerge? Too much of our political class – SNP included – are content with empty rhetoric and soundbites while saying little original.

Many in today’s Scotland continue to see our country in black and white colours: a place where things are either going in the right direction or mired in crisis and failure. These propensities for endless self-congratulation or beating ourselves up are, in Craig’s view, part of the same condition. Through history we have seen ourselves as either damned or saved – drawing from the legacy of our religious Presbyterian past – which has carried into recent times and influenced politics, and the left and radical traditions.

To transcend these limitations we have to understand the power of the past. We have to encourage a culture which acknowledges the good things happening and shortcomings. This would be a country with mature debates about difficult subjects such as the scale of drug deaths, heroin epidemic, record of homeless deaths, and more. None of these have easy or obvious solutions.

Craig notes that there has been progress and that ‘Scotland has politically moved on a lot from the early days of devolution, and the Scottish cringe is much less in evidence’. Yet much more far reaching change is needed and ‘the Scottish Government will say that they are doing wonderful things but a lot of this is just rhetoric’. She concludes that ‘the type of changes I am talking about require a step change in society, a cultural shift, and not just action by government.’

We have to stop blaming where we fall short entirely on external factors such as Westminster. This is often understandable, but lets off too easily the professional vested interests looking out for self-preservation. Many parts of society – education, health, law, even the state of football – have home grown contributions to the problems they face.

Our asymmetrical relationship with England hinders us recognising this – as does the lack of diversity and vitality in parts of public life. Independence on its own does not change these realities unless part of a wider political project about challenging existing elites and power, a point made by the writer and socialist campaigner Naomi Mitchison in 1953:

It seems to me that you are bound to assume that a self-governing Scotland is going to be immediately morally better, and I don’t see it unless there has also been a revolution. I can’t see how the people who are likely to govern Scotland under any democratic system are going to be any different from the undoubted Scots who are in positions of local power.

Far reaching political change requires a self-government about more than the constitution, and our external relations with England and others. It requires that we embrace a self-government which shifts power and authority inside Scotland, takes on vested interests, and finally after 20 years of devolution brings democracy to Scotland.

The future of Scotland and the shape of an independent Scotland are being made today. It cannot wait until Day One after a future indyref. Bringing about change requires looking honestly in the mirror at ourselves and seeing ourselves warts and all, and seeing that we have the power and potential to take charge of our collective destiny.